Stonewall revisited through theater

“Hit the Wall” premieres at Temple Theaters this week.

Senior musical theater major Christiana Buono’s character (right) interrupts a conversation between senior theater major Marcus Barainyak (left) and senior theatre and film and media arts major Kalen Allen (center) during a rehearsal of “Hit the Wall” at Tomlinson Theater last month. | JOCELYN BURNS / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Early morning on June 28, 1969, chaos broke out at the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

When police raided the Greenwich Village nightclub, a popular spot for members of the LGBTQ community, protests ensued. The sequence of events would later be known as the Stonewall Riots — a landmark event in LGBTQ history.

Ike Holter, a 29-year-old African-American playwright, recreated the Stonewall Riots in his 2012 play “Hit The Wall,” a production set to premiere at Randall Theater from Wednesday to Sept. 24.

Temple Theaters is one of the first universities to obtain the rights to the show, which was debuted by the Chicago theater collective “The Inconvenience.”

For weeks, students have rehearsed daily to deliver a performance that can “tell stories to change the world, or to challenge it,”  said Brandon McShaffrey, the director of the show and an assistant theater professor.

The show follows the storylines of 10 characters in New York City. Once the Stonewall Riots unfold, the characters’ paths intertwine.

While fueled by historical events, the characters themselves are fictitious, creating a sense of “imagined realism,” said sophomore theater, film and media arts major Jonathan Hirsch.

Hirsch, who plays a police officer in the production, said the tone of the show changes swiftly.

“It goes from like cute and like sweet, to dark and sour and scary like that,” said Hirsch,  as he snapped his fingers to demonstrate the shift in plot.

The scenes are underscored by rock music reminiscent of the 1960s. As director, McShaffrey decided to set several moments in slow motion throughout the play.

“It makes those moments feel more important and magical,” he said. “And that’s why we do theater.”

The show brings to light events that were pushed into the dark in 1969.

Senior musical theater major Max Ferguson (left) and junior theater major Paul Herald show off their acting skills in a rehearsal of “Hit the Wall” at Tomlinson Theater. | JOCELYN BURNS / THE TEMPLE NEWS

During the riots, some media outlets reported on only one side of the story. A 1969 article by the New York Daily News mentioned the three police officers who were injured and 13 people who were arrested — neglecting to mention the injuries of the club’s attendees.

For McShaffrey, the production is particularly important due to the current political climate.

“To think that happened in 1969, and we just got the right to get married,” McShaffrey said.

The play tells the younger LGBTQ generation what people before them endured to gain their civil rights, McShaffrey said.

“They need to know that it didn’t come without blood, sweat, tears, and high heels and glitter,” he added.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Kalen Allen said of the production.

Allen, a senior theater and film major, plays Carson, an African-American drag queen.

To Allen, the show is a reminder of the privilege he has in comparison with his character, Carson. While Allen said he feels free to go to a nightclub, Carson dealt with the threat of arrest in 1969.

Allen said “Hit the Wall” allows people to learn the history of gay pride parades, which Allen does not partake in because he feels people are unaware of the history.

“Personally, I don’t go to gay pride, just because I feel like it used to be so political, and it’s not as political anymore,” Allen said.

“We don’t really get to learn about that history. That is why I feel like it’s my duty to do this show,” Allen added. “Now I’m able to give history to some of the people.”

For Hirsch, the show has opened his eyes to the suffering of the LGBTQ community, which he only knew of on a “surface level,” he said.

As a police officer in the production, Hirsch said he wrestled with what it means to cause destruction in the lives of innocent people, but he knows his role is vital and hopes it will teach others to be respectful of all people.

He said he hopes the audience will be impacted and even made uncomfortable. Hirsch said “Hit The Wall” is meant to challenge people’s perspectives.

“The show can be too much, too real, too violent, but theater is the one place where you can see the truth…people being people,” Hirsch said.

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